Happy Ending – New Beginning

This week, one of my former students gave me the happy news that he became a father for the first time on May 4th. This is indeed happy news, but especially joyous because Henry’s mom died suddenly when he was three-years-old as a result of a drunken driver.  At the time, I was Henry’s nursery school teacher, and I took care of him full-time for two years following Catherine’s death.  Henry and I were reunited about two years ago, and I blogged about his story here: A Pause for Celebration.

I cannot adequately express the joy I feel that Henry and his partner, Maria, are now proud parents of a beautiful little girl, Catherine Nima Maria.  A big name for such a little girl.  I am so glad that Henry has grown up to be a successful businessman and a loving father.  I had prayed for years that Henry would be safe and live happily ever after.  My prayers have been answered.  His story is both a happy-ending and a new beginning. I am ever-grateful.

I know no other way to express my joy, but to spend the day looking at baby clothes and writing.  I am creating a picture book for Catherine.  It will be the first of many.  This one will celebrate her name and that of her grandmother, who was a good friend, loving wife and mother, taken away too soon.

Introducing Catherine

Be the Flower

This has been a heartbreaking week, a gut-wrenching month: senseless violence in Buffalo and Uvalde.  Teenage gunmen destroyed lives while people shopped at a grocery store and children and teachers were busy in their classrooms teaching and learning. The rage in the minds of these individuals is unfathomable to me.  And though this blog is about literature, art, and education, I cannot let this week go by without addressing the terrible loss and helplessness I feel due to this horrific tragedy.  There must be solutions: stiffer gun control regulations, better mental health care, and stronger protection for our school and public spaces.  This saddens me deeply. What is happening to humanity?  Are we all to live locked away in our private residences with limited social contact?  What will happen to us then? As these thoughts buzzed around my mind this week, I turned to nature, as I always do, for solace – for an answer.

Connection to nature, I believe, is a source for hope, well-being and mental health.  This spring has been filled with flowers.  There are flowers blooming around our school campus,  flowering trees in my yard, and a plethora of flowers casting their spell over many local gardens.  I pass by wild irises on the roadside, their purple tongues dotted with raindrops.  I concentrate on their color and form. I wonder at such beauty, such grace, such an exquisite being, and I want to transform myself into that flower.  I want to grow where I’m planted, feel the soil beneath my feet, spread roots, shoot up tall, and blossom. 

When I began my teaching career, I worked with preschool children.  We spent much of our time outdoors in both good and inclement weather.  The children dug in the garden and were surprised when they pulled up carrots and radishes, believing there was magic in the soil.  They loved to weed, water, and harvest.  They felt control and accomplishment.  Flowers served as a respite for us, a signal to stop and take in beauty, to breathe.  The children would gather small bouquets for me of dandelions, clover, and buttercups. They would string flowers in each other’s hair and make magic potions from the bits of vegetation they collected.  Life outside was a necessary part of their growth and development.

I remember a time, when one girl brought me a lovely red tulip.  She had dissected it, separating its stem, leaves, petals and stamen.  There were tears in her eyes as she held out her hands to me, “Put it back together,” she commanded.  I looked at the flower and wondered, at first, how I could reassemble it for her.  I took the pieces from her hands and placed them on the ground making a tulip mosaic.  I knew this was not what my student had in mind.  She thought I could mend it completely and make it whole again. When I explained to her that it couldn’t be brought back to life, she cried, and I consoled her. She learned that the flower was a delicate and fragile thing, something to care for, something to admire and cherish.  And maybe flowers are part of the answer.  They have been powerfully and wonderfully made. They are a gift from God to humanity to give us strength and make us resilient.

As often happens, a book popped out a me from our school library shelf wanting to be read.  It was a new Caldecott Honor medalist, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?  by Shawn Harris.  It is brilliantly illustrated using simple tools: pencil and colored pencil. It is childlike and surprisingly powerful in its simplicity.  The girl in the story asks the reader to really think about flowers: look deeply, take in their smells, watch them with a microscopic wonder.  Watch them so closely that you can imagine what it feels like to be a flower: to grow roots, take in water, and bloom. The book reminds us to use the flower like a resource – to grow, thrive, and blossom.  Flowers help us reflect, turn inward, and respect life.

I went searching for solace this week.  I went hunting for answers.  I found them in the form of flowers and poetry. Once destroyed, lives cannot be put back together.  Some things cannot be made whole again. But I believe that the solution for violence must be in a turn towards nature, towards beauty, towards the preciousness of life.  Consider the flower.

Embracing the Process

During the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to get back into the Wonder Studio with students.  The Wonder Studio is a little swathe of space formerly the lobby of an old Victorian building that houses some of my school’s classrooms and offices.  I created the space to give children a place to craft and have agency over their own imaginations.  I gather junk, art and craft materials, and recyclables, and then stand back to see what the girls do with them.  Wonder Studio is not a class, though the girls have begged it to be.  Studio time is granted two days a week during recess on the days that I don’t have meetings at lunchtime.

This spring, I invited the 5th graders to come back into the Wonder Studio.  They love to make messes. Today, they sang the “Clean-up Song” to me that they learned in Pre-K. They sang so sweetly and earnestly,  however they didn’t quite clean everything up.  Some of them tried to skip out without cleaning brushes or throwing away paper scraps.  I get it.  I was twelve once.  I was, I assure you – and I too loved to make messes, create, build, and imagine. And I still do.

Last week, while Laila was working on yet another new project, I observed aloud that she often created things and then abandoned them.  She looked up at me grinning.

“I know,” she said, “I love the process.” 

I laughed and agreed.  Then I asked her if I could dismantle her massive seashell sculpture so others could use the shells. She gave me her permission.  As I worked ungluing the shells, Laila started looking around the room at my materials.  She often finds things I didn’t know I had.  Soon, Laila held up a small pink plastic bowl, which was serving as a container for someone else’s small project.  I looked at her skeptically. 

“They won’t mind.  It’s not part of the project.” Laila promised. “Here,” she said as she held up a small box, “They can use this.”  And off Laila went with bowl in hand to create her next project. 

The other girls in the group spend time making bracelets, sewing patchwork pillows, decorating small boxes, or making little rooms decorated with paint, glue, and cotton balls.  Everyone is quiet and very intentional in their constructing.  I do not offer advice unless asked, and I help with construction only when the student needs assistance.  I keep my distance and my humor. Wonder Studio time is actually my time to relax and let joy come to me.  It always does, and it’s worth the mess and the cajoling to clean up.

Laila got out her favorite tool, the hot glue gun and began to adhere things to the small plastic bowl.  She found that the plastic forks did not stay on properly and then peeled them off. Next, Laila took some fat pink yarn and began to wind it onto the bottom of the bowl. She wanted to use counting bears from the math lab closet, but I told her that we couldn’t use math materials.  She frowned and began hunting for a replacement.  She found small wooden objects: an alligator, a bear, a snail, a leaf, and a heart.  As I watched this process, I was fascinated by how quick she worked and how undaunted she was when she encountered failure.  In fact, Laila didn’t think of it as failure, she was enjoying the challenge. Laila would just try something new if the first thing she thought of didn’t work.  At one point, I asked her what she was making.

With a smile, she turned and said, “A centerpiece for your desk!”

I laughed and said, “Laila – when I’m old and in the retirement home I hope you will stop by and show me photos of all the sculptures you have on exhibit all over the world.”

“I will,” Laila said cheerfully and got back to work. When it was time to clean up, she was reluctant.  I put the bowl in my office and told her that it would be waiting for her when she returned to the Wonder Studio.

Today, Laila finished her project.  She put a wooden pedestal in the center of the bowl and turned it over.  Then she glued the pedestal to a jar lid and turned it upside down.  She came over and handed it to me.

“The centerpiece for my desk?” I asked, taking it carefully into my hands.

“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.

I laughed, “Of course, a lamp.  It looks just like a lamp. I am going to put it by pink teapot. Thank you.”

And with that, Laila turned back into the Wonder Studio and started another project, this time with beads.  She took hot glue and put it at the end of some string.  “This way, I don’t have to make a knot,” she said.

Human imagination continues to surprise me. After forty-two years of teaching. I’m still not sure how to teach this kind of ingenuity. The only thing I do know is to make space and step out of the way.  I know that I have to be quiet and listen.  My students always show me the way.  They know what they need.  They know when they are stuck. They know how to change their circumstances and make something new. The process is the learning, and they are totally engaged and in the flow of creating. The key is to embrace the process.

May Posies

Early spring showers have turned the landscape green with dots of pinks, yellows, and lavenders.  My corner of the world is alive with flowers, and I am immersing myself in their glory and hopefulness.  This year more than any other I need flowers and the promise of spring.  I need something to celebrate.  I am in search for beauty.

I am ever grateful to the flowers of Moggy Bottom.  It is my secret garden in close proximity to where I live.  I saunter down its gravel paths and savor the colorful sights and fragrant smells.  Walking there reassures me that spring is surely here, and summer is on the horizon.  It will be soon time for my yearly respite from school.  And though I love teaching and learning, I am in much need for a hiatus from busy. 

When I was a child, I loved preparing impromptu spring bouquets for my mother.  I’d gather them from the wildflowers that grew on the hill at the side of our home: black-eyed Susan, sweat pea, daisies, cornflowers, and buttercups.  I’d gather them in simple arrangements in jam jars or wrapped in damp paper towels tied with string.  I can still see their colors, smell their perfume, feel the calm their beauty brought to me.

Lately, I have been reading about Emily Dickinson’s life of poetry and gardening.  I hadn’t realized that the Belle of Amherst was an ardent and accomplished gardener.  Re-reading her poems, I recognize how integral a role flowers played in Dickinson’s experience of the world around her.  The garden was a metaphor for life and its complexities. She delved in deeply as a gardener would: tending plants, encouraging growth, and intimately noticing the shift of seasons. 

I wanted to delve deeply this week, focus on the flowers of Moggy Hollow, listen to what they were saying, and find a way to express what I was feeling.  I created a posy of flowers to share: trillium, lily of the valley, magnolia – delicate and fleeting like this time in spring when the first flowers bloom and then give way to summer’s abundance.

April Poem #28: When I’m by Myself

My inspiration for “When I’m by Myself” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt comes from Jessica Wiley, is an Alternative Learning Environment Teacher/Special Education Teacher in Morrilton, Arkansas at Southern Christian Children’s Home. Jessica asked us to think about what we do to transform ourselves.  She took inspiration from Eloise Greenfield’s poem – here.

I enjoy the childlike qualities of poetry.  Playing with rhythm and rhyme often spark the imagination.  With this poem, I did have to ponder deep questions, I could just play with the language and imagery.  It was fun to do, and poetry most definitely should be fun.  Once I wrote the first stanza, I felt it wasn’t quite complete, so I decided to reverse it and make a second stanza.  When I’m by myself, I write poetry and make myself happy.

April Poem #26: Woven Words

My inspiration for “Woven Words” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Dr. Amy Vetter is an associate professor in English education in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. For today’s prompt, Dr. Vetter suggested that we scour novels and other texts to construct found poetry.  This is one of my favorite ways to invent poetry.  It takes some of the pressure off and allows me to play with words.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a found poem in response to the Verse-Love annotation prompt – here. Many years ago, I came upon teaching annotation through the Annotated Charlotte’s Web. Today, I took an old, worn copy of Charlotte’s Web and found this poem lying within. Thank you, E.B. White, Wilbur, and Charlotte!

April Poem #25: Everything has a Purpose

My inspiration for “Everything has a Purpose” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt was from Linda Mitchell, a Middle School librarian, and her cat, Ira Gershwin.  The prompt had nothing to do with music, but I do love that name for a cat.  Maybe he purrs in harmony.  Linda’s prompt involved writing a poem using the scientific method for inspiration: make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis, make a prediction, test a prediction, use the results to form another hypothesis.  Easy-peasy, right?  Well, no.  This prompt took some thinking and some reading of sample poems.

I have been facing mortality lately.  It actually is slapping me in the face, but I refuse to succumb to pessimism and negativity. I spend my of my day, earnestly pondering my purpose.  I know my purpose has to do with children and writing. That might be purpose enough, but is it?  Is it really? I feel very mortal lately, and I want to organize my days with purpose and delight. Purpose may be easier for me to imitate by doing lots of things on my “To Do” list.  But is checking off boxes the way to a meaningful life?  The more I think about it, the more I know cultivating delight should be my life’s work.  So here I go playing with letting go and holding on.

Everything has a Purpose

Everything has a purpose.
What is my purpose here?
If only I work hard enough,
I will find my purpose.
If I follow all the rules,
Write the poem,
Hold the hand,
Paint the picture,
Teach the lesson,
Snap the photo,
Make the dinner,
Fold the laundry,
Read the book,
Listen and listen and listen,
I will find my purpose.
I will be so busy
That I can’t help
But find my purpose.


Consider the data.
What have I learned?
All this busy striving
Did not bring purpose.
Purpose lies deep within,
Something in the distance,
Something curious and resolute –
Between dreaming and waking.


Hold on tight
And let it slip
Through your fingers.
You will find it
Out there one day,
For sure, for certain.
This is absolutely true.

April Poem #21: April Remembers

There is something bittersweet about April. Maybe it is because it is my birthday month that I feel this way. My birthday comes at the beginning of the month, and then towards the end of the month, I feel a deep longing. I don’t want April to depart. I want to keep its spring-freshness and cleansing showers. Then I remember that May is coming and with it, the respite of summer. And May means flowers, and that makes all the difference!

My inspiration for “April Remembers” came from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt was from Leilya Pitre, who teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University and coordinates the English Education Program. Leilya invited participants to go for a walk to our place of comfort and write a poem about our experiences. She used “A Late Walk” by Robert Frost as inspiration. These Frost lines stood out to me:

 By picking the faded blue

Of the last remaining aster flower

     To carry again to you.

© Joanne L. Emery, 2022
April Remembers

The flower does not forget
How to blossom.
One green moment
Small and slow.

The moon remembers
To rise above the mountain.
A long, lone breath
Spinning in the silence.

April unfolds to May,
My hand opens to yours,
Your hand embraces mine.
Together we walk towards
Interminable spring.

April Poem #20: Something’s Burning

My inspiration for “Something’s Burning” came from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt was from Tammy Breitwiester, who is a literacy coach in Wisconsin. She suggested to take inspiration from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Burning the Old Year. After reading the poem, what stuck most in my head were the lines:

So much of any year is flammable,

lists of vegetables, partial poems.

I skimmed an old journal looking for some inspiration, and I found a partial poem, which I revived and reconstructed. It was buried deep down inside me. I thought it might be time it give it some oxygen and let it burn.

Something’s Burning

You were the adult.
I loved you so much
With a complete trusting heart.
You were my hero, 
My poet-father.

For years, I searched for the answers:
How could you hurt someone 
Who is part of you?
Did you hate yourself that much?
Do you understand the pain
You caused me?

Then, I burnt away all my feelings
Leaving them red, raw, blistering.
I burnt the whole of me away
Until there was just bone,
Hard white bone.

In a strange way,
You made me strong.
And out of the ashes
I rose like smoke
And filled the air. 

April Poem #19: How to be a Sand Dollar

During my recent March Spring Break, I journeyed to South Carolina. On that visit, I made the acquaintance of a purse of sand dollars. I had never seen them as living creatures enjoying a day in the ocean surf. I was totally mesmerized by them, and I wrote about the experience here.

That was such a wondrous day. Their Christian symbolism captured my attention, and I found myself often returning to the moment I happened upon them at the beach. I knew they weren’t done with me, and I was not done with them. What amazing creatures!

When I turned to Verse-Love, Ethical ELA today, I found the perfect prompt for a poem about sand dollars. Sheri Vasinda, who teaches literacy education at Oklahoma State University, suggested a prompt inspired by Barry Lane. It is from his book, Reviser’s Toolbox. That book was like a Bible to me when I taught 3rd grade. I’m not sure how this prompt escaped my attention until now. Barry suggests writing a “How to be” poem. This topic caught my imagination. I had to think for quite a while. Then I remembered the sand dollars, and I was on that beach in South Carolina once again!

Books By Barry Lane

  • 51 Wacky We-Search Reports
  • After the End: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision
  • But How Do You Teach Writing?
  • Discovering the Writer Within
  • Reviser’s Toolbox
  • The Healing Pen
  • Why We Must Run with Scissors
  • Writing as a Road to Self-Discovery